Tag Archives: Italy

Tuscany Day Trip: Montepulciano and Pienza

A day trip to the towns of Montepulciano and Pienza in Tuscany: touring medieval towns and lunch at an old family-run winery

 

Part One: Montepulciano

This day trip was part of our two week trip in Italy, where we visited Venice, Florence, and Rome. We had an entire week in Rome and wanted to see a little bit of the countryside, and we love wine. So I booked a full day with City Wonders on a tour that took us north to the towns of Montepulciano and Pienza in Tuscany. We don’t normally like big bus tours, but this was the easiest way to do a day tour out out of Rome, so we took a chance.

The tour started at the meet up point at the Piazza del Popolo in Rome at 7:00 AM. As soon as we walked up to the crowds of people being sorted out by multiple tour groups, we wondered if we had made a big mistake by doing a big bus tour.

The tour guide checked us in, we received our earpiece that would help us hear our tour guide, and we got on the bus –hoping for the best. It was October, and the majority of our tour group was older, retired people. Most were American, and many were pretty embarrassing. Loud, obnoxious, pushy, not understanding how to use the headsets, etc., etc.

After about an hour drive, we stopped at a shop off the highway selling lots of different Italian foods and souvenirs, with a cafe in the back. It was 100% set up for tour groups, but there were free samples of just about all the foods for sale. It was nice to be able to try all the pestos, chocolates, olive oils, etc. for sale. We found a really nice pesto and a delicious truffle tapenade.

After another hour on the bus, we arrived at Montepulciano in Tuscany.

Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany

We weren’t expecting the temperature to be so much cooler in Tuscany than in Rome. It was also a lot windier. Many towns in Tuscany are built on hills overlooking beautiful valleys, so the elevation is much higher than Rome. We wished we had brought heavier jackets with us. Note–if taking this tour, take layers with you.

Most of the tour of the town was on a gradual uphill climb, winding through medieval buildings. It was beautiful, and I instantly couldn’t help wanting to plan my next trip back to Italy to spend at least a week exploring Tuscany. It was even more beautiful than the pictures I’d seen.

Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany

Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Old well, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany

After an hour of exploring the town, we make our way back to the bus to head to a winery for lunch.

The winery we visited was also clearly set up for large tour groups, but it was by no means disappointing. Set on a hill overlooking the valley, Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino had its own vineyard and farm. We started by getting a brief tour of the wine cellar. The farm has been in operation since the 16th Century and is family-run.

Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Wine Cellar at Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany

Next, we were lead to the huge dining room where tables were all set for a 3 course lunch and wine tasting. A host from the farm said all of the pasta and food was made on site from old family recipes, and gave us the lowdown of which wines we should drink with which dishes, but we quickly lost track.

Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany

I wasn’t expecting this big bus tour lunch to be one of the best meals of our trip, but it was. Appetizers consisted of bruschetta, nuts, and different flavors of pecorino cheese with local honey. We paired these with some of the white and rose wines and they were fantastic.

Our second course was Tuscan ribollita soup, which was a vegetable soup with bread in it to thicken the soup. It was fantastic. The main course was pasta, and it was some of the best pasta I’ve ever had. And to our delight, the wine kept flowing.

It may sound simple, but on the table they had a chili flake and dried vegetable seasoning mixture as well as an herbed sea salt to sprinkle on your pasta. Both added a surprising amount of flavor enhancement to the pasta. We were happy to find out that they sold both of these in their gift shop, which we purchased along with some truffled pecorino cheese. They shrink wrap the cheese for you to take home on the plane.

 

Part 2: Pienza

 

After lunch, we filed back onto our tour bus to our final stop in the town of Pienza. The retired set on our bus were a little loopy after all that wine, and some of them even passed out on the bus on the way to Pienza. Our tour guide gave us free time to explore the town as she had to deal with the passed out older folks on the bus that the poor bus driver didn’t know what to do with (he didn’t speak English). Travel now! Don’t wait until you are retired. That said, keep traveling when you’re retired, just be prepared for these kinds of things to happen….

 

Pienza is known for pecorino cheese. The guide gave us a tip that we should find the gelato shop that sells pecorino cheese gelato, so this was our first mission. We found some pretty quickly at Gelateria Artigianale. I have to say, it was pretty good.

Pecorino cheese ice cream, Pienza, Tuscany
Pecorino cheese ice cream, Pienza, Tuscany

 

Pienza was a lot like Montepulciano, with medieval buildings and cobbled streets, set on a hillside with gorgeous views of the Tuscan countryside. It was still pretty chilly and windy, and we found a little shop with a very nice men’s wool blazer for Paddy priced at 50% off.

Pienza, Tuscany
Pienza, Tuscany
Pienza, Tuscany
Pienza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany

We didn’t have a lot of time in Pienza, and our last stop was a cheese and wine shop. We bought a bottle of Montepulciano wine and admired the large wheels of pecorino cheese for sale.

Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany

 

This day trip only gave us a small taste of Tuscany, and left us wanting a lot more. We can’t wait to come back to the region, rent a car and a little villa, and explore the little towns on our own. We love wine tasting and visiting vineyards, and the Tuscan countryside is just as beautiful as you’ve seen in pictures. Our next trip to Italy will make the Tuscany region one of our main stops over several days.

Stay tuned for our last Italy post about our week in Rome!

 

 

Florence, Italy

 Two nights in Tuscany’s capital city of Florence: Architecture, history, a fantastic market, and wine windows

 

Day 1: Walking around, falling into a gelato tourist trap, discovering wine windows, and some delicious food.

Florence was our stop on our two week trip to Italy in between Venice (where we arrived), and Rome. We only had two nights and one full day in Florence, and we didn’t have much of an agenda.

Florence is the metropolitan hub of the Tuscany region, and is known for all the famous museums such as the Accademia Gallery (where Michelangelo’s David resides), and the Uffuzi Gallery. If you are really into Botticelli, Michelangelo, and other famous Italian renaissance works of art, Florence is definitely a place for you.

However, as much as we would enjoy seeing the statue of David and some of these amazing works of art, we didn’t want to spend our one day in Florence in museums with hoards of tourists. Sometimes I have “museum guilt” when I travel. I feel like I should be visiting art and history museums, but I just don’t have the attention span. I would rather be out enjoying the architecture, culture, food, and people-watching. Had we had one more day in Florence, we would have tried to visit at least one of these museums.

Tip for visiting museums in Florence: book your tickets in advance. I checked online the day we arrived just to see if there was availability the next day in case we wanted to go to one, and the most popular ones were sold out.

When we arrived in Florence, we were pretty exhausted from all the walking we did during our first three days in Venice. I was very thankful when we arrived by train that I had booked an Airbnb apartment so close to the train station. It was almost disorienting at first to see all the cars and motorbikes going by after being in car-less Venice for three days.

After a short rest, we went out to explore. The architecture in Florence is vastly different to Venice. Everywhere in Italy has it’s own character and unique charm.

Piazza della Repubblica, Florence
Piazza della Repubblica, Florence
Statue of David, Florence
Florence

If you want to see the statue of David but don’t want to go to the museum, there is a copy statue outside the Museo di Palazzo Vecchio that you can get a photo with:

Statue of David, Florence
Statue of David, Florence

We were shocked at how packed with tourists Florence was. There were crowds everywhere. That said, Florence is a fairly small and walkable city. In the center of the city is the Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore. The cathedral is free to enter, but had a very long line. Honestly, the outside was so impressive that it was plenty exciting to just walk around the perimeter and admire the intricate detail.

Cathedral di Santa Marie del Fiore, Florence
Cathedral di Santa Marie del Fiore, Florence
Cathedral di Santa Marie del Fiore, Florence
Cathedral di Santa Marie del Fiore, Florence
Florence Street
Florence Street
Florence Street
Florence Street
Florence Street
Florence Street

We decided to stroll down the main street of Via Por Santa Maria towards the Ponte Vecchio. Paddy wanted some water and I thought some gelato might be nice. We stopped into the next gelato place we saw that was also selling bottled beverages, and ended up paying 17 Euro for one bottled water and one very mediocre gelato. After paying just a few Euros for amazing gelato in Venice, we fell right into this tourist trap. Check the Google maps reviews before buying gelato in Florence! And check the prices before you order as well.

We reached the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval stone bridge dating back to the 1200s. The name Ponte Vecchio translates to “Old Bridge,” which I suppose is fitting. It has many shops along it, most of which were selling gold jewelry. We aren’t into jewelry, so we didn’t find the Ponte Vecchio super exciting other than it’s history.

Arno River, Florence
Arno River, Florence
Ponte Vecchio, Florence
Ponte Vecchio, Florence

We felt like sitting down for a bit for a beer, but were wary of all the tourist traps after the gelato debacle. Miraculously, we walked by a tiny little osteria that had a small deck with a beautiful view of the Ponte Vecchio who welcomed us in for a beer. They said they were no longer serving food but could serve beverages. I cannot find this place on Google Maps and did not note the name. It was a lucky find. We had a relaxing beer and enjoyed the late afternoon sun. We tried the Italian beer that the waiter recommended and were very pleased.

Florence beer

After a rest back at our Airbnb, we decided to venture out and try to find one of Florence’s unique hidden gems: the wine window.

The buchette del vino, (or wine window) goes back a few hundred years in Florence. Tuscany being one of the wine regions of Italy, a wine window was a way for wine-producing nobles to sell their wine out of their house without having to pay taxes.

Google Maps brought us to a wine window not far from our Airbnb at the Cantina de’ Pucchi restaurant. You simply ring the bell in the little window in the wall, someone comes and tells you the wine options, you pay, and they present you with a glass of wine to enjoy on the street. Genius.

Wine Window at Cantina de' Pucchi, Florence
Wine Window at Cantina de’ Pucchi, Florence
Wine Window at Cantina de' Pucchi, Florence
Wine Window at Cantina de’ Pucchi, Florence

This wine window happened to have four tiny two top tables on the sidewalk surrounded by a little iron fence that we could sit at. We were the only ones there at first, but after some other tourists watched us order wine from the wine window, more people wanted to join in.

Wine Window at Cantina de' Pucchi, Florence
Wine Window at Cantina de’ Pucchi, Florence

Wine was 7 euros a glass, and cards were accepted. When you finish your wine, simply ring the bell again and give the glass back. We had two rounds, the second being slightly less enjoyable due to the American family of 5 who crammed themselves into the two top table next to us. The parents enjoyed their wine while their bored kids with nothing to do stood next to our table or crawled under our table or on our chairs. The parents did become aware of their imposition and told us that they were leaving soon, to which I replied “thank you.”

Wine windows are a very unique and historical part of Florence that you shouldn’t miss if you drink wine. I found another blog that lists all the active wine windows in Florence here.

For dinner, we took a recommendation from our Airbnb host’s list of recommended local restaurants and visited Trattoria Marione.

Trattoria Marione, Florence
Trattoria Marione, Florence

While the cuisine in Venice was very seafood-focused, the cuisine of Florence is more beef and pork centric. Trattoria Marione had decent prices, and served hearty home-cooking style food in a homey atmosphere. It was plenty busy when we arrived, and became busier by the time we left.

We started with a simple fresh mozzarella and tomato appetizer, and then went for some traditional dishes. Paddy had a side salad and the Osso Buco, which was a veal dish served with peas, and I had the eggplant parmesan with a side of salted spinach.

Trattoria Marione, Florence
Trattoria Marione, Florence
Trattoria Marione, Florence
Osso buco, Trattoria Marione, Florence
Trattoria Marione, Florence
Salted spinach and eggplant parmesan, Trattoria Marione, Florence

Everything here tasted like home cooking. Nothing fancy, nothing upscale, just quality home-cooked style food. It might sound bizarre, but the salted spinach was the best spinach I’d ever had. It was perfectly cooked and perfectly salted, and was an outstanding accompaniment to the eggplant parmesan.

We called it an early night with a movie and a bottle of wine from the store back at our apartment.

 

Day 2: A much needed rest day and a fantastic market

 

We woke up the next morning with aching feet and very stiff calves. We had been doing so much walking over the last few days that we really needed a day to take it easy.

Fortunately, we had walked around and seen a lot of the main sights of Florence (except for the museums) the day before. To our delight, we discovered that there was a Chinese reflexology/foot massage place just a couple blocks from our apartment.

Starting the day with breakfast at our apartment, we then dropped into Shu-Xin massage and foot massage shortly after they opened. We were told they could do two foot massages in an hour. We strolled around a bit, had coffee in a nearby cafe, poked into a few shops and came back for our foot massages.

30 minutes later, we were restored. This is something we’ve come to make a habit during our travels after a few days of walking. We check Google maps for a Thai or Chinese massage place in the neighborhood, and it always helps tremendously.

One big attraction in Florence that we had not yet explored was fortuitously right across the street from our Airbnb: The Mercato Centrale.

Mercato Centrale Florence
Mercato Centrale Florence

The Mercato Centrale is enormous and all indoor (except for the tourist stalls outside selling leather goods and souvenirs). The lower floor is mostly meat, flower, cheese, pasta, and produce stalls. The upper floor is full of food stalls and beer and wine vendors, with tables throughout the center. Basically, it’s a huge, amazingly delicious and high-quality food court. It reminded us a lot of the Time Out Market in Lisbon, which we also loved.

Overwhelmed with choices, we took two laps around before we decided on a wine bar serving cicchetti-like bread slices with various toppings. It was crowded in the food court tables, but the wine bar had their own tables, which was convenient. We had a lovely cicchetti lunch with wine.

Mercato Centrale, Florence
Mercato Centrale, Florence

We wanted to try everything in the market, but we didn’t have enough meals left. Had we had more days in Florence, we would have gone back and eaten at the Mercato Centrale for many more meals. Everything looked delicious and there were so many things to try. Don’t miss this market!

Before we left, we couldn’t help trying one more Italian delicacy–the cannoli. We stopped at a place selling various desserts and pastries with a whole window of different types of cannoli. It was hard to choose. They were fantastic.

Mercato Centrale, Florence
Cannoli at Mercato Centrale, Florence
Mercato Centrale, Florence
Mercato Centrale, Florence

We did a little more walking around, picking up a couple souvenirs and re-visiting a couple shops that looked interesting from the day before. We didn’t want to wear our legs out too much, as we knew we had a lot more walking ahead of us in Rome the next day.

For dinner, we had made a reservation at Trattoria Za Za, which our host said was one of the most popular restaurants in Florence. It was conveniently located right underneath our Airbnb apartment, and was always packed. If you want to eat here, be sure to get a reservation.

For an appetizer, we started with the fried polenta with mushrooms and chicken liver pate. It doesn’t look super appetizing, but it was delicious.

Trattoria Za Za, Florence
Trattoria Za Za, Florence

We ordered way too much food. We also wanted to try the fried squash blossoms (another typical Italian dish), so we ordered a side of those along with our main dishes. They were lovely but a bit heavy. I had the wild boar pappardelle, which I read was a typical dish of the region, and Paddy had a steak with a side of rosemary potatoes. I added a side of spinach, after last night’s spinach was so delicious.

Trattoria Za Za, Florence
Trattoria Za Za, Florence
Trattoria Za Za, Florence
Trattoria Za Za, Florence

The pasta was fantastic. It was a much larger portion than I was expecting, and I only got through about half of it. Fortunately, we had a fridge and a microwave in our apartment so I was able to save it and eat it for breakfast the next morning. I am not sure if the Italians are weird about asking for a to-go box like the French are, but I don’t care–I’m not one to waste delicious food.

 

Florence was fun, but it wasn’t our favorite place in Italy. Had we had a few more days there, we would have opted to do a wine-tasting day trip out in the Tuscan countryside, and possibly visit a few of the famous museums. We would definitely have eaten a lot more things at the Mercato Centrale, and ventured to find more of Florence’s adorable wine windows for a pre-dinner (or mid afternoon?) glass of wine. There is a lot of Florence we didn’t get a chance to see, and if we head back to Tuscany some day I wouldn’t mind giving it some more of our time.

Stay tuned for the rest of our Italian adventure in Rome!

Read about our previous adventure in Venice here

Venice, Italy

Three nights and two days in Venice, Italy: Exploring history, food, and culture in one of Europe’s most unique cities

 

Italy was our first adventure out of the country since the pandemic had ended. Being Paddy’s first time in Italy, we opted to do three city destinations: Venice, Florence, and Rome. We only had two weeks, and Italy has so much to see. For a first trip, we thought we’d hit the big destinations. We opted to visit in October when the weather was still nice but not so hot. In the summer you have intense heat (especially in southern Italy) combined with crowds, which sounds miserable to us. October is still has a lot of tourists because the weather is usually great, however most of the families are not traveling during this time so it thins the herds a little bit.

We have always wanted to see Venice. Yes, it’s crowded and overrun with tourists. That said, it is still one of the most unique cities in the world. The most aggravating thing about visiting Venice (to locals and other travelers) are the cruise ship crowds. The ships show up, vomit off hoards of tourists, pollute the air, and then collect the tourists back up and sail away. The tourists spend very little money, as many of the tours are organized by the cruise ships, and they are not spending money on lodging or dinners.

However, if you are staying in Venice for a few days, the evenings in Venice are wonderful. The cruise ship tourists have left, and the streets and canals are lovely to stroll around in–at least in our experience. Venice is a place you should see in your lifetime if you have the chance. Just be prepared for crowds and remember to pack your patience with you.

 

Day 1: Arrival, Cicchetti, exploring

After a sleepless and eventful flight that had a passenger medical emergency (which fortunately ended up being okay), we landed at the Venice Airport. We had booked an Airbnb in the Cannaregio neighborhood of the main island of Venice.

Our lovely Airbnb host Tommaso offered to meet us at the airport and was there waiting for us at the baggage claim. He gave us our apartment key and sent us a video of how to get from the Alilaguna water bus stop to our apartment, and showed us to the Alilaguna ticket counter and told us which water bus boat to take.

It was very nice of him to meet us at the airport, however if you don’t have a Tommaso to greet you and show you where to go, it is pretty easy.

Airport tips:

1. Don’t buy an Alilaguna ticket at the machine kiosks, you can just get one from the counter outside by the boats.

2. Don’t use the airport ATMs. We tried this but it wanted a ridiculous 20% fee. We cancelled our transaction. It is easy to find an ATM once you are in Venice, and most places take cards.

Alilaguna Water Bus Stop at the airport, Venice
Alilaguna Water Bus Stop at the airport, Venice
Alilaguna Water Bus Stop at the airport, Venice
Alilaguna Water Bus Stop at the airport, Venice

After a short ride in the water bus, we arrived at our stop and used Tommaso’s video to get to the apartment.

Tips for navigating Venice:

  1. Google Maps is often wrong or directs you in ways you cannot actually go. A few times it told us we could jump over a canal to get to our destination.

2. Pack light. There are no cars in the islands of Venice, so you will be       wheeling or carrying your luggage around. We managed to keep it       down to one carry on size suitcase, one medium sized suitcase,             and a backpack each. We were very glad this is all we had packed.

3. Wear comfortable shoes. You will be doing A LOT of walking in             Venice. If you are someone who is mobility-challenged, Venice is           not very accommodating to people with mobility issues. You will           be going up and down a lot of canal bridges with stairs as well.

Venice canals
Venice canals

Our Airbnb was in a very quiet little area about two blocks from a busy main street with lots of shops and restaurants. We really enjoyed the quiet location and it was easy to get around.

Airbnb in Venice
Airbnb in Venice
Airbnb in Venice
Airbnb in Venice
Airbnb in Venice
Airbnb in Venice

The Airbnb was tall and narrow with three floors–a small kitchen/living area on the bottom floor, a bedroom and bathroom on the second floor, and another bedroom with an ensuite bathroom on the third floor. One of the best features was a view of one of the smaller canals from the kitchen window, where the gondoliers would go by.

We took an hour nap, showered, and then headed out into the neighborhood to explore and get something to eat. One of the most typical (and wonderful) things to eat in Venice are cicchetti. They are kind of like Italian tapas. They are often (but not limited to) slices of baguette-like bread with different toppings. They are typically eaten before dinner with a spritz or a small glass of wine.

Cicchetti, Venice
Cicchetti, Venice

We found a little cicchetti shop on the main street of Strada Nova that appeared to be popular with local teenagers. We selected a few and ordered a glass of wine, then went outside and found a place to sit by the canal. It is common to eat standing or sitting outdoors at cicchetti shops. Some places (particularly in Venice) will charge you a higher price to sit at one of their tables vs standing or taking to go.

We tried one of the most typical cicchetti, which is bread with a cod fish spread, as well as a small ham sandwich and another one with pumpkin, mushrooms, capers, and pickled onions. They were all delicious.

Sustenance obtained, we continued on to a grocery store called Despar Teatro which was a small grocery store located in an old theater to find some stuff for breakfast. If you’re staying in the Cannaregio area and are looking for a grocery store, this is a pretty awesome find. Lots of breads and a really nice deli, not to mention beer, wine, and many delicious-looking meats and cheeses. We made the faux pax of not weighing our bread, but the checkout clerk helped us out and was very nice about it (oops).

Later that evening we headed out to find dinner, without any real plan. We were pretty exhausted, and after strolling around a bit, we walked by a place called Osteria La Busara with a delightful seafood display in the window.

Osteria La Busara Venice
Osteria La Busara Venice

We were deliriously tired and jetlagged, and overwhelmed with the busy area and tourists. I had also read a lot about restaurants in Venice hating tourists, or having outrageously high copertos (cover charges) added onto your bill, etc. We were weary of falling into a tourist trap, but we were also just weary. And tired. So when the restaurant owner came out and asked us if we wanted a table, we said yes. The place was packed (a good sign). The owner came back out with two complimentary glasses of champagne and said it would be about a 5 minute wait. A wonderous welcome.

Osteria La Busara Venice
Complimentary champagne at Osteria La Busara Venice

A few things about dining out in Italy:

  • There are multiple courses. You can pick a couple, but you don’t have to do all of them–that would be a lot of food! An appetizer and a pasta course or an appetizer and a main course are usually plenty unless it’s a very high end restaurant where multiple courses are part of the experience.
  • The bread is not free. If there is bread or small appetizers brought to your table after you are seated that you didn’t order, you will be charged for them. If you don’t want them, it’s okay to refuse. The bread typically isn’t very expensive–so if you want it, keep it.
  • In some places like Venice, a coperto is charged for sit-down meals. This is a per person “cover charge” that covers the cost of service, such as use of the dishes and table service. It is typically only a few Euros per person, and should be listed at the bottom of the menu.
  • Don’t order a cappuccino with or after lunch or dinner. Cappuccinos and coffee drinks with milk are strictly morning only in Italian culture, and ordering one after 11:00 AM is looked down upon.
  • Don’t order a cocktail or a beer with dinner. Cocktails are for before dinner or after dinner, but during dinner it is customary to drink wine only.
  • If you would like coffee after your meal, you order espresso. Order espresso after dessert, not with.
  • Ordering a digestivo such as limoncello after your meal is a very Italian thing to do–and delicious.
  • A service charge is sometimes added to the bill. Tipping is not expected, however if you thought the service was outstanding, you can leave a few Euros or some change.

For our first dinner in Venice, I ordered the octopus with potatoes and tomatoes, and Paddy ordered the crab stuffed ravioli. We each ordered a salad as well.

Osteria La Busara Venice
Osteria La Busara Venice
Osteria La Busara Venice
Osteria La Busara Venice

The service was great, and there were definitely Italian people eating at La Busara (not just tourists), so it was a successful first dinner in Italy. The server even offered complimentary house-made limoncello at the end.

That was all we could muster for our first day in Venice, and we went to bed to sleep off our jetlag as best we could.

 

Day 2: Basilica di San Marco, The Doge’s Palace, and more exploring Venice

There are a couple big attractions in Venice in the Piazza San Marco: The Basilica di San Marco, and the Doge’s Palace. We decided to knock those out first thing, and then spend the rest of our time in Venice exploring more local neighborhoods.

After reading that these two attractions have very long lines and are very popular, we opted to pre-book a skip the line guided tour of both through Viator. We knew we had done the right thing when we saw the extremely long line for the Basilica when we arrived. Not only do you get to skip the line, but you have a guide telling you about everything in English. It was 100% worth it. If you book one of these tours, be sure to book at least a couple weeks in advance as they often sell out.

Piazza San Marco, Venice
Piazza San Marco, Venice

Piazza San Marco is the most touristy area of Venice. It is near the cruise ship ports and big attractions, and is very crowded in the day time. Pack your patience.

Our tour was a small group led by a very nice guide. We started with the Basilica di San Marco, a very impressive cathedral dating all the way back to the year 1063.

Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

The Doge’s Palace was next, another lavish spectacle of art and architecture dating back to 1340. This is the Palace of the Doge of Venice, the supreme authority figure of the former Republic of Venice. It became a museum in 1923, and the tour included the Doge’s apartments, institutional chambers, and the prison. A famous part of the palace is the “Bridge of Sighs,” which was a bridge connecting the palace to the prison over the canal with windows on the sides. The name refers to the sighs of the prisoners as they are marched to their prison cells, as they have their last glimpse of the outside world.

Doge's Palace, Venice
Doge’s Palace, Venice
Doge's Palace, Venice
Doge’s Palace, Venice

We enjoyed the tour, but overall these attractions were probably our least favorite Venice experience. If you have limited time in Venice, I would only tour these if you have more than one day and are really into history and Renaissance art. The tour was about 3 hours long total.

We were hungry when the tour was over, and ready to sit down for a bit. I had a cicchetti place that I found on Google Maps in mind, so we headed that way. On our way out of Piazza San Marco, we were bombarded by hoards of tourists in the tiny, narrow streets. I began to worry that the cicchetti place was in a really touristy, crowded area.

To our delight, we turned a corner and found it in a tiny courtyard with no one around. It was very small and casual, with only two little tables. The owner was very nice and we had a lovely little lunch.

Cicchetti lunch in Venice
Cicchetti lunch in Venice

After lunch, we decided to hit one more attraction before heading back to the apartment for a rest– an old book store called Libreria Acqua Alta.

Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice

The book store is narrow and the back of the store has a door to the canal behind it, with a gondola tied up in the canal outside. There is a little cup on a chair by the door to the canal with a suggested 1 Euro donation to go take a photo sitting in the gondola. No one was in front of us, so we went for it. When we were done, there was a line building to get a photo.

Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
Paddy posing in the gondola at Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice

Paddy couldn’t handle the crowds any longer, so he left while I checked out the other part of the outside of the store–the famous staircase of old books. It’s basically a lot of ancient books stacked on top of each other to build a sort of “staircase” in a little courtyard behind the store. It’s also an Instagram mecca.

Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice

If you look online for Libreria Acqua Alta, you might see some Instagram shots of someone in this little book stair situation, looking all wistful and artsy. The reality is this:

Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice

I’d still recommend going here to see it, the store is pretty cool. However, go in the early morning right at 9:00 am when they open, or later in the day. They close around 7:00 PM.

Venice streets
Venice streets
Venice canal
Venice canal

After a much needed rest (and break from people), we ventured out to explore again.

Venice canals in the evening
Venice canals in the evening

Since we had dropped a little money on dinner the night before, we opted to find a less expensive meal this evening. It was a Monday night and refreshingly quiet and peaceful. A Google maps search for pizzerias with good ratings led us to Pizzeria Trattoria La Perla in the Cannaregio neighborhood.

Pizzeria La Perla had a cozy atmosphere, and a movie theme. It is located next to a movie theater, so I suppose that is a nice symbiotic relationship.

The prices here are great, as were the pizzas. They had a lot of options, including some we’d never seen. I wanted to try something unique, so I went with a pizza with pumpkin puree, tomatoes, and feta. It was delicious and more savory than I expected.

Trattoria Pizzeria La Perla, Venice
Trattoria Pizzeria La Perla, Venice

After dinner, we wandered around what felt like a more local neighborhood. Venice in the evening is lovely.

Produce stand, Cannareggio, Venice
Produce stand, Cannareggio, Venice
Produce stand, Cannareggio, Venice
Produce stand, Cannareggio, Venice
Venice in the evening
Venice in the evening

Before heading back to our apartment, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to try our first Italian gelato. Another Google Maps search brought us to Gelateria Gallonetto. Reviews claimed that it was some of the best gelato in Venice. You won’t see the gelato on display like most shops, it is kept in metal canisters. I ordered tirimisu and chocolate, and I can confirm that it is fantastic.

Gelateria Gallonetto, Venice
Gelateria Gallonetto, Venice
Venice at night
Venice at night

Day 3: The Rialto Market, a canal tour, and more delicious food

The next morning, we opted to explore the famous Rialto Bridge and the nearby Rialto Market.

The Rialto Bridge Is one of the largest bridges in Venice, as it goes over the Grand Canal. You can get some great views of the Grand Canal from the bridge, but be prepared for crowds–it’s a popular place.

Grand Canal view from the Rialto Bridge
Grand Canal view from the Rialto Bridge

We quickly tired of the crowds and crossed the bridge over to the San  Polo area of Venice. We tried to get a good view of the Rialto Bridge from the side of the canal, but it was hard to get a clear full view. There was some nice photo ops of the gondolas, however.

Ponte di Rialto on the Grand Canal, Venice
Ponte di Rialto on the Grand Canal, Venice
Gondolas on the Grand Canal, Venice
Gondolas on the Grand Canal, Venice

The Rialto Market had it’s tourist stalls selling leather goods and souvenirs, however the fish market and food stalls were refreshingly local. It was fun to see the variety of seafood and produce for sale.

Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice

We explored the San Polo area a bit, and ventured to see the Ponte delle Tette, or the “Bridge of Tits.” The bridge got it’s name from being the place where topless prostitutes would gather in in the 1500s to 1700s to attract customers.

It was kind of anticlimactic, but historical nonetheless.

Ponte delle Tette, Venice
Ponte delle Tette, Venice *Bridge of Tits)
Venice door
Venice door
Venice Canals
Venice Canals

There was one classic Venice experience we had not had yet– a Gondola ride. However, our fantastic Airbnb host Tommaso offered to take us on a 1.5 hour tour around the Venice canals in his boat for 120 Euro. We opted to do this instead, as having a local Venetian show us around  the canals on an extended tour sounded like a much better deal.

If you do want to take a gondola ride, the price is set by the gondolier’s union so you won’t have to haggle. Recently I read that a 30 minute gondola ride costs about 80 Euro during the day, and 100 Euro after 7:00 PM. To take one, just find a Gondolier standing around waiting for your business. If he or she seems grumpy or gives a bad vibe, you can just go find another one.

Tommaso gave us an awesome tour, and it gave us a chance to ask him questions about Venice. He showed us some famous spots, as well as his favorite local area of bars and restaurants and gave us suggestions for dinner.

Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice

Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice– Tommaso, our wonderful tour guide and Airbnb host
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Rialto Bridge, Canal tour of Venice
Rialto Bridge, Canal tour of Venice

Tommaso’s canal tour was one of our favorite experiences in Venice. If you want to book his Airbnb, you can find the listing here.

For dinner, we walked over to the area of bars and restaurants Tommaso said was his favorite, enjoying more canal views along the way. It was a nice evening, so we chose a seafood restaurant called Al Mariner with outdoor seating on the canal.

Venice
Venice
Venice
Venice

We started with a classic Venetian drink–the Aperol Spritz, and the scallop appetizer.

Aperol spritz at Al Mariner, Venice
Aperol spritz at Al Mariner, Venice
Scallop appetizer, Al Mariner, Venice
Scallop appetizer, Al Mariner, Venice

The scallops were buttery and delicious. The pasta was very nice as well. One thing about pasta that we noticed in Italy–it is very “al dente.” We were aware that Italians like their pasta this way (a bit firm), however we were a bit surprised at how firm. By American standards, many Americans would think the pasta was undercooked. We did enjoy it the Italian way, we were just a bit surprised as it was different than what we were used to.

Al Mariner, Venice
Al Mariner, Venice

We ended the meal with our first Tiramisu in Italy, and it did not disappoint.

Tiramisu, Al Mariner, Venice
Tiramisu, Al Mariner, Venice

After dinner, there were two cocktail bars we wanted to explore. The first one was a bit of a trek from our dinner location, however it was a really nice evening.

After a long and lovely walk, we arrived at Il Mercante, a craft cocktail bar in the San Polo area. Small and intimate, it was an upscale and trendy spot with subtle speakeasy vibes. We opted to sit upstairs on one of the couches. The waiter was very friendly and brought us water and some peanuts.

Il Mercante, Venice
Il Mercante, Venice
Il Mercante, Venice
Il Mercante, Venice

The menu had some unique creations on it. Paddy couldn’t resist the “Pulled Pork” cocktail, which came with a pickle.

Il Mercante, Venice
Il Mercante, Venice
Il Mercante, Venice
Il Mercante, Venice

The Pulled Pork was interesting, but not a favorite.

Il Mercante’s menu changes periodically, so you can visit their website for a list of their latest concoctions. Overall it was a very nice craft cocktail bar, very intimate and a little fancy.

Our next cocktail stop was TIME Social Bar back in the Cannaregio neighborhood. We were curious about this one because it looked like they had tiki cocktails on the menu.

TIME Social bar also has an elevated cocktail experience, although the bar is much smaller and has a more Italian feel to it. We opted to sit outside again and enjoy the evening. Paddy had a traditional Tiki cocktail with rum, which came with a bamboo straw and a fancy bamboo platform with a faux monstera leaf.

I was feeling a bit tired and was happy to see that they had a mocktail menu as well. I opted for a hot non-alcoholic drink which was mostly chamomile tea, honey, ginger, and spices. It came with two little cookies and was a nice night cap.

TIME Social Bar, Venice
TIME Social Bar, Venice
TIME Social Bar, Venice
TIME Social Bar, Venice

It was time to end our stay in Venice. We walked back to our apartment, taking in our last views of the canals and little streets.

Venice in the evening
Venice in the evening
Venice in the evening
Venice in the evening
Venice in the evening
We saw these panties tagged all over the city. We enjoyed them.
Venice in the evening
Venice in the evening

If we had one more day, we would tour the outer islands of Venice, and eat A LOT more cicchetti. Our favorite experiences in Venice were honestly just walking around and taking it all in. The beautiful historic canals and bridges and architecture never got old.

Continue our Italian adventure here as we move on to Florence!